PhD Appls

A guide to the US PhD Applications!

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Well, because it's America! Just kidding. Your decision should never be impulsive about why you chose a country for your studies. You should have proper reasoning to back up your own decision. There are many pointers that you must keep in mind while choosing US for your doctoral studies. 
  • PhD in US ranges from 5-6 years. That's a long time if you really think about it. 
  • In the first year, you rotate through 3-4 labs to choose your thesis advisor and lab. Along with that, you also complete coursework, both general and specific. Most programs also have Teaching Assistant duties associated with your first and second year. 
  • Lab is chosen in the second year. Here is when you start your thesis research. You also need to appear for the candidacy exam (which is quite rigorous), which proves your caliber for extending your research. 
  • From the third year till the fifth/sixth year, you devote entirely to your research. 
This system of graduate doctoral degree has some advantages:
  • You don't need to narrow down too much into a topic as you can explore it after you reach the grad school.
  • You can even change your field if your interest changes during the lab rotations.
  • You get to do teaching assistantships which helps you get experience for the academia. 
  • The PhD degree is long (i.e. 5-6 years), therefore, you get enough time to do your research. You get to develop your own research question/project (though it highly depends on the lab).
  • US PhD is highly recognized all over the world. So you won't find it difficult to get a job or post-doc after that.
However, everything comes with a cost:
  • US PhD being long won't suit students with a very specific topic or project in mind. The rotations and coursework might seem a lot of burden and a waste of time. 
  • Students willing to go for an industry career may not like the US system, as it's long (again), and all the teaching experiences etc., aren't asked for!  
Therefore, think carefully and make your own decision. Do your own research! 
Taking break between an MS and a PhD doesn't necessarily affect your application's potential, rather if the time is used effectively can increase chances of selection!
So you have prepared your mind to take the adventure to the US. Just believe in yourself and you will do it! Get, Set, Apply...

Most of the grad applications follow a deadline around December 1. However, some schools have deadlines till January 31. But don't wait till the end, plan early! It's not something you can accomplish in a night; it needs time and patience. 
  • April–July: Start searching for potential schools and supervisors. Go through the university websites (have patience!); they might seem complex, but the time is worth it. Follow the papers and reviews of the professors you find interest in. Applying to around 10 universities is considered a safe number. The strategy should be 3-4-3 for ambitious-moderate-safe tier universities. However, this "tier" is subjective and solely depends upon you. Generally, students use world rankings to categorize, but it is entirely up to you how you want to go about it. Nevertheless, you are completely free to play around with these numbers. Don't overestimate or underestimate your academic stand; this will help you avoid rejections. Moreover, I recommend not to shortlist a school with a rank >500. You can also reach out to your MS thesis advisors for their advice regarding your grad school applications. Your shortlisted universities should have at least 3 professors whose research interests match yours. Happy SHORTLISTING!
For Ranking of Universities, you can refer to any one of them: QS or THE or ARWU
  • July–August: Be done with the TOEFL and GRE registration. Look out if most schools you selected need it. Otherwise, you can go for a skip, especially for the GRE! Register for exam dates around September or early October. Because in case anything goes wrong, you will have dates to reappear.  
The  TOEFL fee generally increases around 1st August, so do the registration before that to save some bucks! 
Use code "DUNIATOEFL10" for a $10 discount, on the TOEFL checkout page!
  • August-October: Start cold-emailing your shortlisted professors. Take time for it. Never write a general email! 2 to 3 emails per university should be considered a good number. However, for the same university, don't send them all at once; send one at a time and remind them after 7-10 days. If you don't hear back even after that, go for the second one. However, feel safe to mail one professor from each university simultaneously. It will save you time. But be sure you have done proper research before clicking the "Send" button.  
  • September: The application portal opens. Be prepared for the adventure! And simultaneously prepare well for the exams, and I am sure you will come out with flying colours (NEVER TAKE COACHING FOR THESE). Start drafting the SOP (Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement) for your programs of preference and building the CV (prefer LaTeX). Moreover,  reach out to your referees and note if they are available to give you a recommendation. In the meantime, start mailing the current and previous grad members of the labs you have shortlisted. They can provide valuable input regarding the program and the professor. 
  • October:  Start filling out the application forms. Be careful and patient. It takes time! Reach the referee information section as soon as possible so that your advisors get enough time to write their recommendations. By the end of the month, you should have a draft of the SOP, which you can start sending for peer and faculty review. While cold-emailing, ask the professors if they would be okay  with reviewing your SOP. Believe me, that sometimes works out!
Use Scholaro-GPA to calculate your 4.0-scale GPA. Use the "University of Hyderabad" grading scale. 
  • November: Complete your applications one by one and pay the requisite fee. The fee can range from $50 to $150. But if you really look, it has a very high ROI (Return on Investment)! Once you enter your dream school, you will start earning and saving a lot of money (obviously not as in a job!). Hence, don't hesitate. If you have any problem paying the fees, you can reach out to your friends or seniors, who are always willing to help you. Nevertheless, some universities are willing to offer waivers for students from weak financial background, you can email them if you think you need that. 
For applications having early deadlines/rolling admissions, I suggest applying asap, if your CV stays same.
Pay hefty application fees with no extra charges? Yes, use "NiyoX" app's free forex card.
Congratulations! You are on the way to get selected in one of the most competitive application process globally. OK, so I now assume (why assume, I am sure) you have been selected for the interview process. What's next? 
GradCafe is a website where students post program updates regarding interviews, acceptances and rejections. So, don't forget to check it out!  
Having anxiety, hearing your friend's selection to a program? Your result is on way. So, chill...
If you are rejected, don't be too sad, it's not the end of the world! Mail the program asking for the specific reason for rejection; they might have something on which you can improve, or you might be considered for wait-list!  
Some programs don't have interviews. That's when you are lucky. Congrats! 
OK. Don't panic if it's your life's first interview. It's generally going to be very easy if you are confident about yourself. Don't imagine professors sitting round you and bombarding you with subject-related questions, as generally being done in an interview in India! Therefore, preparing well for the interview is the key. 
If you have made it to the interview, you have made it to the top applications. Hurray! But wait, this doesn't guarantee anything. So don't be super excited. Start preparing! Again go back to your university's and program's website, and do a thorough research. Jot down all the crucial points you feel are critical and unique to that school. For one-to-one interviews, before sitting for that particular interview, check the lab website of the professor and read briefly about his research, in case he/she was not in your SOP (which is very much possible). Remember you have to stand out of all other candidates who nearly have the same resources as you. So be vigilant and genuine! 
The questions can range anything from personal to professional. Hence, the list of question categories below is non-exhaustive:
  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Questions pertaining specifically to a research experience in the past, or regarding your master thesis research. 
  3. Questions about why you are interested in that field, or why you chose their university/program. 
  4. Simple logical questions
Some interviewers might ask for an MS thesis presentation. Therefore, keep that handy as well, but make it brief! Note that each university might conduct several one-to-one interviews depending on their professors' availability. Remember, the interviews, along with judging your interest and motivation towards research, also test your English-speaking abilities. Hence, if you lag in speaking, try to improve that before the interviews. And the most important part, ask questions to them, at least two! This gives them a sense that you are genuinely interested in their school and are eager to know more. The questions can be anything, but try having both general and specific questions to attract their attention.
Here are some web links that can help you get an idea of what questions you will be asked and what you can question to them. But, DON'T copy!
Last but not least, Dress Well. It gives a notion that you are serious about the interview! Be a good interviewee.
Don't flood the mailboxes of the program asking for the final result. Have patience!
Hey, did your mailbox notify you of that email from the program, starting with "Congratulations!"? Well, you should now pat yourself; you have done it! You should be proud of yourself. Call your parents and friends; they will be super happy! But well, the work is not yet over. Uff! There can be two categories here:
  1. You get only one admit. 
  2. You get multiple admits.
If you belong to the former category, well, you need to decide and if yes, accept the offer immediately.
However, if you are in the latter one, then again, it's a tedious job to select one among them! Your decision should be made after a highly intensive research, so you never regret it later. You need to consider multiple factors, ranging from research quality, the number of papers, type of field, type of professors, climate, sports, urban/sub-urban, fellowship amount, health insurance coverage, funding in the labs, private/public universities, state safety index, tax levels in the state and many more. Most universities follow the national acceptance deadline of April 15. So, take your time before accepting the offer and do thorough research. 
It might seem morally wrong to decline a program which you initially accepted, but you may do so because, at last, it's your career. No one will hold a grudge!
For comparing cost of living, visit "Living Wage Calculator" by MIT.
You can negotiate with programs for fellowship, if you receive multiple admits! See how HERE
So, you made the decision finally! You are going to your dream university. Tighten your belts and prepare for the journey. There are so many stuff to accomplish and it varies among universities. Start preparing a note where you keep track of everything you have to do as your mailbox will be flooded with emails from different offices from your university. Most students go on an F1 visa (non-immigrant student visa), so I will provide details regarding that. 
  1. The first and foremost thing to do is to request  the I-20 form, which your university will issue on your behalf.
  2. Once you have your I-20, pay the SEVIS (I-901) fee ($350) and fill up the DS-160 form. This form is a bit long and is quite extensive.  Reach out to your university if they help students waive off the SEVIS fee.  
  3. After that, complete the US visa application form and pay the visa appointment fee ($185). This payment page takes some time (1-2 days) to update. 
  4. Next is the time for scheduling the visa interview. There are five US consulates in India: Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, and Hyderabad. This process is really notorious, believe me. Join telegram groups that give live information on where slots for the interview process are available. It needs a bit of luck, but finally, you will be able to get a slot. Once you get a slot, start preparing for the interviews. Be confident and genuine–the only suggestion I have! You can read about my visa detailed experience here
  5. While all this, continue checking the flight ticket prices. Flight prices can soar very high upon high demand; so, if you are confident that you can crack through the visa interview and ready to take a bit of risk, I suggest you to go ahead and book the flights. Always book the flights from airlines' official websites, which give student discounts and free-rescheduling options along with extra baggage allowance.  Also, keep checking the off-campus housing options near your university. On-campus housing in the US is generally not affordable for students under a fellowship or assistantship.  
  6. If you have friends going with you, that's good. Otherwise, start searching for roommates/apartment-mates. Post in the social media groups or join the WhatsApp groups of your university, where you will find your future friends and mates. 
  7. Some immunizations must be taken before you reach the US, or you can also take them after reaching it if they are covered under your medical insurance. So, also take a look at that.  
  8. Watch out. You can follow different YouTube channels which give valuable information on moving to the US as an Indian student. Some of them which I have followed are: Yudi J, Singh in USA, Parth Vijayvergiya, Yash Mittra - YMGrad, Yashwanth Mulakala  and WeDesified. They also have a lot of videos regarding life in the US and many other kinds of stuff. 
Open a Zolve bank account before you reach US. It gives a Credit Card without an SSN number! If you have an Indian Credit history you can apply HERE for a Blue Cash AmEx Credit Card  and you can get a crazy credit limit! 
Visit this LINK for many more details related to VISA and on what to carry to the US. Welcome to the US!
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Here is a wonderful book written by Breanna Lam (PhD student at MIT) about PhD and its process!! It's a really nice  short read. 
Finally, let me quote something:
All the information and suggestion provided on this page are my own views that I have garnered from my experience through the session 2021-22. It's just a step to help students get a better view of what the overall application process looks like. So, please do your own due diligence. Moreover, nothing on this page is a paid promotion! I would love to hear back from you if this page helped you in any way ❤️. I welcome your valuable suggestions. Please write back to me HERE if this page was helpful.
Happy USing . . .